This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Lesley M. M. Blume. She is an award-winning journalist and a writer for Vanity Fair magazine, and her new book is called Everybody Behaves BadlyThe True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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R. Clifton Spargo knows how to find the un-findable.

When confronted by the great absence in the late portion of doomed jazz age/literary power couple F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s mad and troubled romance—their undocumented trip to Cuba—he did what any debut novelist with enough gumption to change careers would do: he fabricated (and went to Cuba himself), with style and perceptive nuance.

Expatriates, I’ve found, don’t necessarily get along. Meeting someone from home who’s navigating the same foreign country as you are can be a source of mutual suspicion or rivalry just as often as it’s a springboard to friendship. Other times, there’s only that superficial common ground to briefly stand on, making it all the more apparent you likely would have nothing to do with one another back on native soil.

But then there are those moments that you do find a fellow expat, someone you wish you’d known back home before you left for this new place, and the person can become a long-lost life raft.

When I decided to write a book, just after deactivating my Facebook account in a fit of pique, I also decided I would act like a professional writer, even though I wasn’t one yet. To me this entails reading everything I can get my hands on, writing every free minute of the day, and drinking heavily. I decided I wouldn’t curb my alcohol intake at all, at least until the book was finished.

JC: I was lucky enough to learn about Tatjana Soli’s new novel The Lotus Eaters through JE. All I can say is if you like your war novels with a heavy dose of influence by Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s an astoundingly good book with cinematic flair and a gutsy recasting of the last days of Vietnam. More on The Lotus Eaters later. Here’s her WWFIL:

Loneliness, Love, and Hemingway

by Tatjana Soli

I’m sure that I was exposed to Hemingway in school, as a necessary and dreaded English assignment, but reading him left no impression other than he was a chore to be gotten through. Then I turned seventeen, fell in love and promptly got my heart broken (big time), and suddenly Ernest Hemingway became my best and closest friend. I have a theory that after thinking in childhood that we will never be alone, in adolescence we suddenly see that we are alone (big time), and then along comes First Love, and we jump, thinking maybe we don’t have to go it alone after all. This is the primal reason why we become readers — to have that deep companionship of a good book. But at seventeen, nothing — not loving parents, or sympathetic girlfriends, or any of the usual remedies — worked, at all.

One afternoon, moping through our family bookshelves, I opened The Sun Also Rises (thankfully the publisher changed it from the original proposed title, Fiesta, which I would probably have been skipped over) and came upon Robert Cohn’s line: “Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it?” Yes! That book became as much a guidebook for life to me at seventeen as The Purple Land became a guidebook for the deluded Cohn. No, I never did make it (yet) to Pamplona for the running of the bulls, but I understood Cohn’s unrealistic longing for South America, as well as Jake Barnes longing for Lady Brett Ashley. I always found the vague war-injury excuse to undercut Jake’s understanding that no one is going to keep Lady Brett happy for long, injury or no.

As I blazed — indiscriminately, promiscuously — through the rest of the novels, then the short stories, then the non-fiction, I didn’t care about the story line or the subject matter. I felt at home in Hemingway’s prose, and the only thing I really dreaded was coming to the end of all of his books (this was before I discovered the prolonging of joy called rereading). What did I fall in love with? Place is a big one: a bygone Paris, the small towns in France, Italy, and Spain, the old-movie version of African safaris. But I fell in love, too, with his sense of time. There is a magic to his arrangement of words in a sentence, sentences in a paragraph, paragraphs on a page, that feels as true as your own breath. For me, Hemingway is as much an artist of the way time passes as Proust, as in this short passage from A Moveable Feast:

All of the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street and the closed doors of the small shops, the herb sellers, the stationery and the newspaper shops, the midwife — second class — and the hotel where Verlaine had died where you had a room on the top floor where you worked.

The big revelation for me in Hemingway is that his subject matter was beside the point. I hate bullfighting, safaris, and even fly-fishing seems kind of boring, but in Hemingway’s hands I understood that he was writing both about the subject matter and through it about life. In all of his best work — The Sun Also RisesA Farewell to Arms, “Indian Camp,” “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “ The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” “Big Two-Hearted River,” “In Another Country,” and A Moveable Feast — the common theme follows Faulkner’s dictum that the best writing is always about “the human heart in conflict with itself.” I wasn’t seduced by the machismo of bullfights or deep-sea fishing, but I was seduced by Hemingway’s deeper quest of living an authentic life. Forgive me, but I never got Fitzgerald. Gorgeous sentences, and the ending of Gatsby is indeed one of the most beautiful and profound passages in American literature, but in general it frustrates me how dazzled he is by surfaces. The famous exchange (true or not) with Hemingway is telling:

Fitzgerald: “The rich are different than us.”

Hemingway: “Yes. They have more money.”

For a period of about a dozen years during and after college, I purposely stayed away from Hemingway, the influence of his style simply too seductive and overwhelming. Now, I return like the prodigal daughter, curious what I might find changed. One is always a little wary that what thrilled you at seventeen won’t quite pack the same punch at twenty-seven, much less thirty-seven. I’m happy to report that unlike that first false love that led me to Hemingway, my love for his work has stayed and matured. A clean, well-lighted place, indeed. Someday I intend to go to Pamplona, sit in a café, and raise a glass of wine to Papa.

JC: Two coinciding events led me to Hemingway recently.

A couple of weeks ago, we posted Greg Olear’s essay for the When We Fell In Love series, in which he wrote about The Sun Also Rises. Around the same time, we posted D. R. Haney’s WWFIL about William Faulkner. Over at The Nervous Breakdown, we had quite a few comments preferring one author or the other for various reasons; I fell in behind Uncle Bill, but admittedly hadn’t read any Hemingway since high school, aside from the stray short story.

About the same time, the broadcast of the Academy Awards drove me to the local library, when, seeing that the Coen Bros. had a film that I missed this year, I followed a whim or two. Searching for more information online, I discovered that their next film is True Grit. So I went looking for Charles Portis, which was kindly shelved where it oughtto have been. Perusing the fiction section, I uncovered an old Ron Rash, and eventually found myself in front of Hemingway, TSAR in my hand. A pretty good haul.

It takes about two pages to learn two things. Hemingway is a hell of a writer and Norman Mailer owes him a fair chunk of his royalties. Or did, anyway. I’m a big Mailer fan, read all the fiction, and some of the nonfiction, and I knew that he owed Hemingway a debt, but never realized how much. The resemblance is uncanny. EH’s prose is tighter, and NM’s lewder, but it’s there.

Hemingway’s funny too. I didn’t recall that from any previous readings.  The dialogue in the Parisian section is sharp, the repartee cutting. It’s reminescent of FSF in a lot of ways. The empty-headed, self-congratulatory celebration of Jake, Brett and the gang.

As the partiers move from Paris to Pamplona, their temperature rises along with the feverish pace of the fiesta. Fueled by booze and the blood of bulls and matadors, Jake and company devolve into jealousy and violence. They are torn alternately by passion and disillusionment.

I can see why Greg wrote that he’s read it many times over the years. I like the book more after thinking about it for a week than I did immediately upon finishing it, and I liked it then. I’m reminded of EH’s Iceberg Theory on writing, which I’ve heard paraphrased often enough, but here it is as he put it:

If a writer of a prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of the iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. The writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.

—Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

That fits. Hemingway leaves a lot unsaid in TSAR, which the reader interprets. That’s good, because it keeps the critics busy and out of the bars. It also leaves a lot for the rest of us to think about. How much of the treatment of Cohn is anti-semitism, how much is his inattendance at the war, and how much is because he’s a lovesick loser? How far does the postwar disillusionment extend? What’s the significance of Jake essentially pimping the matador? Lots more.

I had one problem, and it’s not Hemingway’s fault. It’s television’s fault. You see, the running of the bulls in Pamplona is an iconic scene in the novel – raw, bloody – and it ought to be meteoric and shocking. But it’s not, because every year every news channel shows 20 seconds of the running of the bulls, hoping to catch some dope being trampled or tossed on a horn, accompanied by a jackass newsreader making a joke. Of course, the only reason they cover it at all is because of Hemingway’s novel. A paradox. I can’t remember having that sensation before – that my prior knowledge of a scene made me disappointed in it.

It’s odd to say that someone as well known and read as EH might be underrated, but that might be the case, because he seems quite out of favor. I still prefer Faulkner, but I want to read something from the more mature Hemingway, so this week I’m planning to pick up a copy of either For Whom The Bell Tolls or A Farewell to Arms.